Leadership from the "bottom up"

Published by Dr. Georg Michalik on LinkedIN, 12 October 2015


Leadership from the bottom will lead to changes in the way we lead and how we help leaders to develop in the future. Will the leader become more of a service provider than a decision maker? How shall the leader make the shift without leaving a vacuum?

Recently I was told the following story: A small consultancy firm hired a young professional, let us call him Mike, for their research department. One part of the job was to use the company`s Client Relationship Management tool. It took him only a few days to make up his mind that the way the tool works could be done in a much better way. Soon Mike addressed the IT firm to change the Source Code in order to make the tool better. He did that completely on his own and by chance his manager found out what was going on.

I don`t know what Mike was thinking or what motivated him, but I can imagine he acted with the very best intention and I think it felt very natural for him, however more alignment is needed. Mike needs to make a conscious decision: can he adapt to working in a less self determined way?

What is the manager`s role in this process? Should he tell Mike directly that he went far beyond his authority, or should he lead and encourage the employee to make the right decision on his own? The latter has the higher probability of keeping motivation up and achieving a lasting change in his behavior.

This leadership challenge is an example of leading from the “bottom up”.

  1. Mike took the initiative. The decision making shifts, from the top, to the bottom. Earlier generations were socialized to ask before acting. This attitude slowed organizations down. So the concepts of “empowerment” and “entrepreneurship” were invented. Training programs and cultural change initiatives tried more or less successfully to eliminate conformity in employee behavior. For Gen-Y it is not an issue any more. From Amazon to Zalando digital natives were used to sitting in the drivers seat. They learn this pattern and when they are in the role of an employee they act in the same way. This is exactly what Mike did.
  2. The Manager needs to adapt his leadership style. Mike is used to making the decision when he sees the solution to a problem. He is not used to aligning his behavior to the needs of others. He is also not used to asking for advice or permission from superiors. At the same time he is very ambitious, has a good will and attitude and therefore is a valuable employee. An authoritative style would not be accepted by him, also coaching wouldn`t work because for Mike there is no problem, and consequently he sees no reason to change his behavior.

We see leadership needs are changing through changes in employees self- conception.

Leadership from the bottom up requires:

  1. A shift in perception.
  2. The will and ability to let go and stay in close contact.
  3. The ability to lead conversations to decision making.